Category Archives: Bit of politics

Actually, it’s about ethics in plebiscite campaigning

I’ve refrained from long-form comment on the UK’s EU referendum, partly because the debate is generally painful, but also because there are extremely clever people who’ve already made most of the points I’ve wanted to make.

One thing that I think is worth addressing, though, is the current suggestion that people are switching back to Remain because they “don’t know what Brexit looks like” (thanks to Paul Evans for the formulation here). I think this is definitely true; I also think it’s a positive response to a specific failure within the Leave campaigns [1], not just a fear of change.

The reason “we don’t know what it looks like” is that the people who are in favour of it have polar opposite, completely contradictory visions of what it should look like.

When Scots voted on their Remain/Leave decision, the SNP – to its great credit – published a long document containing the details of exactly what it would do in the event of independence. Some of these were criticised for over-the-top optimism about the actions of rUK and the EU, and others on the basis of their effect, but crucially Scots knew what the people in charge after a Leave vote would try to do [2].

That simply doesn’t exist for the UK EU referendum. The Leave campaigns, all of which include people likely to be in government in the event that Leave wins, have adopted positions that range from “staying in the free migration zone and the common market” through to “deporting settled EU migrants and relying solely on WTO basic rules for trade access”.

That – not the inherent uncertainty in doing anything that hasn’t been done before – is the crux of the “not knowing what it looks like” problem.

That deliberate, dishonest ambiguity is also why Leave has done far better than it would have done had it been forced to outline what it would actually be attempting to do in the event of a referendum win. As it is, “build a libertarian paradise with no tariffs and open borders”, and “Britain first, deport all the immigrants” types can rally round the same banner, even though they disagree with each other at least as much as they disagree with the current model.

[1] The existence of “Leave campaigns” with an S is probably the tl/dr of this.

[2] The SNP white paper was flawed and optimistic, but at least it was there for you to be able to critique its optimism and flaws. Similarly, a Leave manifesto that committed to a Norway model could reasonably be critiqued on the basis that the EU might not let us have one – but in the actual campaign we’ve seen every model of multilateralism/autarky from Norway through to North Korea thrown up, dependent on what the politician in question thinks the audience wants to hear. “Is their plan credible” is secondary to “do they even have one”…

Electability and absurd arrogance

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next US general election. I also didn’t know what was going to happen in the US electoral primaries, although I don’t think there’s any great shame in admitting the current situation isn’t what I anticipated.

It seems highly likely, at this point, that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate, barring the kind of machinations that haven’t been seen since Andrew Jackson’s day. The Democratic primary process is far closer, although Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by a comfortable-looking margin at the moment.

Mr Trump is a squalid, crooked neo-fascist – basically Silvio Berlusconi with added racism. Anyone saying they know exactly why he’s popular is full of shit, but it’s clearly a combination of angry white bigotry, disillusionment with Washington’s specific flavour of insider crookery, and susceptibility to the daft concept of career success as a marker of general merit (the latter is also why people unfortunately listen to Richard Dawkins’ views on Muslim theology and Barry Humphries’ views on gender theory).

Various people in the pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders camps have suggested over the last couple of months that their candidate is electable, whilst the other candidate is un-electable. I’ve seen more Clinton fans go down this route than Sanders fans, but not by a huge margin.

There are arguments why this might be the case for either candidate. Mr Trump’s success is based on disillusioned white working class male voters, and these are also Mr Sanders’ strong group by a wide margin. On the other hand, Ms Clinton has managed to combine strong popularity among black voters – whose increased turnout compared to previous years was important in President Obama’s success – with grumpy acceptance among moderate centrist Republicans (including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg) as a tolerable alternative to Mr Trump.

But with these good arguments on either side, and given the extent to which punditry in this Presidential race has already failed dismally, anyone who says “you should vote for Ms Clinton/Mr Sanders in the primary because they’re the only one who’s electable” is an absurd arrogant fool.

My preference is that the clown show leaves town

Like most countries founded by people with a passionate and blind terror that they might at some point be subjected to democracy, Australia has a Senate with more-or-less absolute veto power over its House of Representatives.

As in many federal countries, Australian Senators are allocated on a state-by-state basis, not on a citizen-by-citizen basis. The result is that a Senate voter in Tasmania (population 550,000) has more than 12 times the say of a Senate voter in New South Wales (population 7.5 million).

In other words, the Senate is entirely unrepresentative by deliberate design, and anyone who cares at all about voter representation should solidly be lobbying to either abolish state-by-state voting or to abolish the Senate itself.

There is currently a mass debate about Senate reform in Australia. Unsurprisingly, it consists of absolutely none of this, but instead is an absurd and unedifying clown show. The net result is that the Green Party and the Liberal (conservative) Party have agreed a reform deal that tinkers slightly with the voting system, and various people on the political left are displeased.

The ABC’s excellent commentator Antony Green has the gory details,  but in short (detail brutalised for clarity; not importantly for these purposes, but make sure to plagiarise Antony and not me for your civics class):

  • Under the current system, you go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, tick a box for your favourite, and then if they fail to get in, then your preferences are distributed according to a list that they have created in advance, all the way from Candidate #1 to Candidate #200.
  • Under the new system, you will go to the election booth, be given a list of parties standing in the Senate, number your favourites from one to six (and continue after six until you’ve numbered everyone or can’t be bothered to write any more), then your preferences will be distributed according to the order you wrote. If everyone you’ve listed gets eliminated, your vote gets thrown away.
  • Both systems also give you the option to number your own candidates from #1 to #200 if you are weird, but nobody actually does this. Under the current system you must number all boxes; under the new system you will only have to number 12 boxes but can number more if you like.

The most important thing about this change is it makes very little difference to what normal voters do, which is to vote 1 for Labour, Liberal or Greens, preference whichever of the other two they hate the least above the one they hate the most, and then number as many other boxes as they are grumpily made to.

The second most important thing about the change is that it’s a very minor improvement on the status quo. Normal people will be making their own choices, rather than following a dodgy list that’s inevitably compiled for tactical rather than ideological sympathy reasons. Weird people will no longer get hand cramp from numbering 200 boxes.

So why on earth is there an outcry?

Well, the only people who lose out from this process are old-school corrupt party machine politicians who trade votes like commodities… I wonder if these people have privileged access to media platforms at all?

He was watching the defectives

Extremely sad to hear about the sudden unexpected death of long-time friend, crony and partner in crime Tom Barry, of BorisWatch and @boriswatch fame.

Tom provided exactly the kind of hard-nosed, subject-expert and ruthless research and writing into London’s terrible mayor and supine general assembly that nobody in traditional local journalism has (bothered to do / had time for) in decades.

He did this while carrying on a day job as a telecoms expert and being a fully committed dad to two  adorkable boys aged under 11*, and whilst being at the very least a good enough partner to Ish that she put up with him for the whole timeframe.

And he was only 41, and this has broken me a bit. Young people get run over or end their lives or  have tragic but long-running illnesses, they don’t just die, that isn’t how it works. They don’t send pics from beer gardens the same month they die of glorious fun with the kids they love mockingly labelled “when will the torture of parenthood end?” because the fucking concept that it might is ridiculous.

This blog seems to be eulogy-focused lately. Unlike Meg Williams , as well as not being  in his 80s, Tom had a great deal of internet presence – but the two share the context of having touched shedloads of lives for the better. Also, CAN EVERYONE FUCKING STOP DYING?

Two updates.

One: Tim Fenton has written a great piece on Tom’s extremely well researched ‘blogging’ (or ‘investigative journalism’, as it used to be called when paid journalists could be bothered to do it) exploits.

Two: I wrote this at the start of day on 3 November (AEST – lat night 2 November GMT) when the news was under semi-embargo from family. Even since then, I’ve had at least one thought on naval history where I  thought “I’ll ask Tom about this one… fuck.

*I fully expect to get a write-in comment from Tom’s eldest saying “actually I am 11 so I’m not under 11”, because did I mention adorkable? Hopefully I’ll be able to ask him for naval history clarifications in due course.

Today we’re all gay Americans

Congratulations, the US Supreme Court, for making a sensible decision based on Constitutional precedent that horrendous rightwing idiots will pretend is overreach until long after we’re all dead.

To celebrate, here is a nostalgic musing on religion in education.

There was a strange Welsh Baptist chemistry teacher at my high school who ran a renegade version of the Christian Society (the actual Christian Society was run by a nice Quaker chap who was extremely ecumenical and earnest).

It showed exposes by American Southern Baptist churches about how evil everything was. Including a four-part series about how evil rock and roll was.

Naturally, we pitched up to this every lunchtime, on the grounds that rock and roll and bearded Southern Baptists explaining exactly how evil rock and roll was were both more fun than a drizzly field in Guildford.

My favourite bit was when at the end of the final episode, the Southern Baptist presenter explained that not all modern music was bad, to the accompaniment of some utterly awful evangelical Christian Rock dirge, and Mr Jenkins paused the tape to point out to us that actually all modern music is very bad indeed.

We affirmed his opinion that this music was, indeed, very bad. He seemed happy.

There was no late swing, and there were no shy Tories

One of the most interesting questions after the 2015 UK General Election is, how could all of the electoral polling possibly have gone so incredibly wrong?

Labour and the Conservatives were predicted to be neck-and-neck and both short of forming a government on their own, with Labour losing about 50 seats in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

election_eve_poll
UK 2015 seat prediction on election eve, according to the Guardian’s poll-of-polls

Instead, the Conservatives won a small majority of total seats. Netted out, Labour gained only four English seats from the Conservatives despite its low 2010 base, and lost two seats in its heartland of Wales to the Conservatives.

Labour’s remaining gains in England came from the brutal destruction of the Liberal Democrats, which the polls dramatically understated. This was cold comfort, as the Conservatives took far more former Lib Dem seats, including almost all of the ones that the polls had predicted would stay orange.

Actual UK election results
UK 2015 actual UK election results

So what the hell happened?

Two popularly floated explanations in the media have been a late swing, and the ‘shy Tories’ problem. Both are almost certainly wrong.

Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got late swing

One thing we can reasonably rule out is the concept of a late swing to the Conservatives: a scenario where the polls accurately captured voting intentions, but where people changed their mind at the last minute.

We know this, because online pollster YouGov made an innovative attempt at a kind of internet-based exit poll (this is not how YouGov described it, but it’ll do). After the vote, it contacted members of its panel and asked them how they voted. The results of this poll were almost identical to those recorded in opinion polls leading up to the election.

Meanwhile, the UK’s major TV networks carried out a traditional exit poll, in which voters at polling stations effectively repeated their real vote. This poll (which covered a balanced range of constituencies, but whose results weren’t adjusted as they are for small-sample opinion polls) found results that were utterly different from all published opinion polls, and came far closer to the final result.

Putting the two together, the likeliest outcome is that people were relatively honest to YouGov about how they voted, and that they voted in the same way they told all the pollsters that they were going to vote. This isn’t a late swing problem.

No True Shy Tories

If we ignore Scotland (where the polls were pretty much correct), this is a similar outcome to the 1992 General Election: opinion polling predicted a majority for Labour, but the Conservatives instead won a majority and another five years of power.

A common narrative for poll failure after the 1992 election was one of ‘shy Tories’ [1]. In this story, because Tories are seen as baby-eating monsters, folk who support them are reluctant to confess anything so vile in polite society, and therefore tell pollsters that they’re going to vote for the Green Party, the Lib Dems, or possibly Hitler.

From 1992 onwards, polls were weighted much more carefully to account for this perceived problem, with actual previous election results and vote flows also being used to adjust raw data into something that can reasonably be expected. This happened in 2015, as it has for every election in between [2].

We know that the internet provides the illusion of anonymity [3]. People who’d be unlikely in real life to yell at a footballer or a children’s novelist that they were a scumsucking whorebag are quite happy to do so over Twitter. Foul-minded depravities that only the boldest souls would request at a specialist bookstore are regularly obtained by the mildest-mannered by an HTTP request.

In this environment, if ‘shy Tories’ and poor adjustment for them were the major problems, you would expect internet-based polls to have come closer to the real result than phone-based polls. But they did the opposite:

The current 10-day average among telephone polls has the Tories on 35.5% [and] Labour on 33.5%… The average of online polls has the Conservatives (32%) trailing Labour (34%)

So what is the explanation then? This goes a bit beyond the scope of a quick blog post. But having ruled out late swing and unusually shy Tories in particular, what we have left, more broadly, is the nature of the weighting applied. Is groupthink among pollers so great that weighting is used to ensure that you match everyone else’s numbers and don’t look uniquely silly? Are there problems with the underlying data used for adjustment?

Personally, I suspect this may be a significant part of it:

According to the British Election Study (BES), nearly 60 per cent of young people, aged 18-24, turned out to vote. YouGov had, however, previously suggested that nearly 69% of under-25s were “absolutely certain” to vote on 7 May.

Age is one of the most important features driving voting choice, and older voters are both far more conservative and far more Conservative than younger voters [4]. If turnout among younger voters in 2015 was significantly lower than opinion pollsters were expecting, this seems like a good starting point for a post-mortem.

Update: YouGov’s Anthony Wells comments on the YouGov not-quite-an-exit-poll:

[1] Some polling experts think the actual failure in 1992 had more to do with weighting based on outdated demographic information, but opinion is divided on the matter.

[2] Several polls in 2015 that showed 33-35% Labour vote shares were weighted down from raw data that showed Labour with closer to 40%.

[3] An illusion that diminishes the closer one comes to working in IT security.

[4] There are papers suggesting that this is to do with cohorts rather than ageing, and that It’s All More Complicated Than That, but anyone denying the basic proposition above is a contrarian, a charlatan or both.

FPTP doesn’t mean your vote is wasted – just ask a Scot

The UK’s New Economics Foundation, who style themselves as nef because that’s the sort of thing that was cool in 2003, are one of the worst think-tanks going [1].

With a couple of weeks to go before the 2015 General Election, they have jumped on the election news bandwagon. Their effort is well up to their normal standards of competence.

One of nef’s pet ideas has long been that the UK should have a mainland-European style electoral system, dropping member-represented constituencies in favour of party lists based on percentages of the national vote.

So they’ve created a data website that claims to show ‘how much your vote is worth’, based on the size of the winning party’s majority in the seat you’re voting in at the last election (so if the majority last time was 10, your vote is worth masses, and if it was 20,000 your vote is worth bugger all).

This isn’t a completely unreasonable thing to do. The UK first-past-the-post system tends to favour major parties and local parties, while discouraging nationally-supported minor parties.

For example, in the 2010 election, the Northern Irish pro-unionist DUP won 8 seats on 0.6% of the UK-wide vote, while the neo-Nazi [2] nationwide BNP won no seats at all on 1.9% of the UK-wide vote. The Green Party won one seat on 0.9% of the UK-wide vote, reflecting its greater geographic concentration than the BNP [3].

Meanwhile, Labour and the Conservatives have historically tended to focus campaigns on battleground seats rather than seats where everyone is very poor or very rich.

However, the UK system also allows me as a voter in the constituency of Islington North to vote for a rebellious, anti-war, left-of-Labour MP like Jeremy Corbyn, rather than for whoever goes on the top half of a list of party sycophants to be rewarded with office for years of dedicated hackery.

And as someone who believes democracy is a means rather than an end, I rather like the way that the UK system mostly filters out Nazis and raving lunatics.

Since nef is composed of the kind of early-career wonks who would end up on the ‘rewards for dedicated hackery’ list, it is not surprising that their press release – as faithfully repeated by the Independent here – dwells entirely on the negatives of first-past-the-post, and compares it solely to a European-style list PR system, without stating any of its drawbacks or the alternative systems [4].

But as well as being framed in an absurdly biased way, the study is self-refuting.

UntitledHere’s a list of the UK seats where, in nef’s opinion, voters’ opinion matters the least. According to nef’s analysis, voters in these 10 seats might as well stay home on polling day, because there is absolutely bugger all chance of their vote making a difference to man or beast.

To paraphrase Captain Blackadder, there is one tiny problem with this list: it is bollocks.

Of the ten seats on the list, two (Coatsbridge etc and Kirkcaldy etc) are currently predicted by Lord Ashcroft’s constituency-level opinion polls to change hands at the 2015 election from Labour to the SNP. A third (Glasgow North East) is predicted to remain Labour with a majority of only a few percentage points over the SNP. And a fourth (Belfast West) changed hands less than 20 years ago, as part of a major shift in the Northern Irish republican vote from the moderate SDLP to the, uh, less moderate [5] Sinn Féin.

I don’t know about you, but if I were putting out a press release to promote my brilliant study of electoral things, I’m not entirely sure that I’d include a table proving that it is utter nonsense.

Of course, all four of these cases were driven by a massive realignment in regional politics: the present annihilation of Scottish Labour in the wake of the independence referendum, and the previous annihilation of the moderate-but-inept-and-corrupt mainstream Northern Irish parties once the peace process was safely(ish) in place.

nef would probably argue that their methodology is still valid for the vast majority of safe seats in England and Wales – which, as for Labour’s lowland Scots seats, will be true until it isn’t.

Once an inflexion point is reached, FPTP systems deliver massive, immediate change – as seen most clearly in Canada at the 1993 election, where the ruling Progressive Conservatives [6] went from 154 seats to two. This kind of change is generally in line with the popular will, even if it doesn’t reflect the exact vote weightings of every single party on every single occasion.

When a party is wiped out under FPTP, that’s when the voters of Belfast West and Glasgow North West, of Canada’s Tory outer-suburban heartlands, get their say. It’s their say, not the say of the floating voters in the English Midlands, that is brutal and final. And it’s this pattern that nef’s analysis completely and utterly misses.

To miss FPTP’s potential for seismic shift might be forgivable, in most election campaigns. But as nef’s own data shows, it is happening in Scottish Labour’s weigh-the-vote seats right now, in this election. They’re either wilfully blind, or entirely stupid.

[1] nef’s policy solutions aren’t quite as wrong as those proposed by, say, the Taxpayers Alliance, but such groups are owned by rich crooks who  pay them to publish research lying that the government should give more money to rich crooks, so are wrong for reasons other than incompetence.

[2] The BNP claim they aren’t neo-Nazis, but they are lying.

[3] Thankfully, neo-Nazis don’t tend to agglomerate in specific areas to quite the extent that posh hippies do.

[4] The Australian system of UK-style constituencies with transferable votes, as rejected in the AV Referendum; the Irish system of combining a few constituencies and electing several members using transferable votes; and the Scottish system of geographical constituencies with top-up lists  are all examples that are arguably superior to the European list model.

[5] Depending chiefly on how moderate you believe blowing things up and shooting people in the knees is.

[6] Obvious joke: the Progressive Conservatives’ policies included toilets for bears and a Jewish papacy.